Coward's way out

Theatre Three's Blithe Spirit is droll overkill

They just don't make purely theatrical animals like Noel Coward anymore, eccentric creatures with greasepaint for blood and a gloriously pathological need to project their own cultivated persona onto every character they write and perform. Like many of the playwrights-actors-composers of his generation, Coward erased the line in his own life between the personal and the theatrical. You could imagine the man sitting on the toilet, well-thumbed copies of Balzac and Voltaire in a wrought iron basket beside the bowl, a pen and notepad next to the toilet tissue so as not to waste a single acerbic observation that might strike him in such idle moments.

Almost without exception, his plays and musicals featured the kind of people he was (although the artist's own proud homosexuality only surfaced in teasing hints, like his entendre-laden pop hit "Mad About the Boy"): British professionals with a penchant for elegant self-deprecation, WASPs who often as not turned their own stingers on themselves when their passions didn't jibe with the strenuous demand of maintaining that unruffled surface.

Of course, this is the highwire act that was always and continues to be Great Britain's gift to the rest of the world--the revelation that human nature never conforms to the rigors of a class system. American playwrights inherited this tendency to view the social process as a clash between inferiors and their social betters. The difference between America and England is that the U.S. revels in the comic possibilities of the lower class humiliating the upper class. English humorists tend to accept the sharp distinctions that money and education draw among citizens of the same country; they are more interested in the upper classes humiliating themselves, confronting the forked road that runs between duty and desire and utterly failing to fulfill both no matter what decision they make.

Noel Coward was most interested in sex as the supreme spoiler, the great equalizer. His comedies raised more than a few eyebrows when they were staged for the first time in London and New York, although the decade in which he debuted as a playwright--the 1920s--was a startlingly sophisticated era in terms of theater audiences thirsting to experiment with a wider variety of human couplings. World War II pretty much quenched that adventurousness, although even as America assumed its most righteous pose to confront European fascism, Noel Coward refused to tame his muse. He debuted his most controversial comedy, Design For Living, in America in 1933; a staggering six years later it would appear in a scarred, frightened London. In neither place was his matter-of-fact tale of a menage a trois--the comedy came not from condemning such a configuration, but portraying the trials of its daily maintenance--particularly welcomed by theatergoers who, at that point, were desperate for stability, not bald-faced moral tinkering.

Still, his instincts as a sexual gadfly were utterly, Britishly overseen by his love of language and the ruinous potential inherent in almost every party conversation. Noel Coward was a master of titillation, not confrontation; he never wanted to stray so far away from the needs of his audiences that he might jeopardize a satisfying evening of theater. It's not surprising that Coward's most successful play should be in many ways his most conservative, written and staged in 1941 at the culmination of the 20th century's most cataclysmic international fracas.

America and England were obsessed with the dead at this point, and more specifically their influence on the living. Blithe Spirit managed to fill a cream puff of supernatural comedy with a tiny, meaty morsel of erotic farce. With this play Coward managed to address the effect of serial monogamy on one man by forcing that history upon him--his first wife died of an unnamed illness while both were very young. In trying to connect the dots between a man's impetuous, vengeful first love and his provincial second, our hapless hero scribbles all over the pages of his own carefully recorded life.

It's easy to see why a cash-strapped Theatre Three would choose to stage Blithe Spirit, the phenomena that ran for 2,000 consecutive performances in London. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to appreciate the comedy's meager comic cupboards and overarching self-satisfaction in 1996, when theater audiences might benefit from a reintroduction to Noel Coward's more daring sex comedies. As performed by a proficient if slightly wooden cast, T3's Blithe Spirit plays like one of those rote revivals you flog yourself for not enjoying even while the actors beat you senseless with their own soulless verisimilitude.

Earnest author Charles Condomine (Artie Olaisen) and his dreadfully prim wife Ruth (Leslie Alexander) innocently stage a dinner party one night with married friends (Terry Vandivort and Cecilia Flores) at which the invited guest is a notorious, bicycle-riding medium named Madame Arcati (Sharon Bunn). She conducts a seance for the entertainment of the invited guests and for the research purposes of Charles, who is writing a non-fiction (and decidedly skeptical) book about the supernatural. What Charles doesn't anticipate is the return of his flirtatious, impatient, fractious first wife Elvira (Lisa Gabrielle-Greene).

Watching stage actors in a Texas theater company wield uppercrust British accents would seem to be a recipe for disaster, but I must report that beyond the occasional slipup--almost always involving a pronunciation of vowels never before heard on this planet--Theatre Three's Blithe Spirit cast never distracted me with its collective, assumed English voice. I'd have gladly traded a sophisticated British lilt for a cannier, more disruptive performance anywhere onstage. The material dictates performers tirelessly maintain that mantle of respectability, and convey the poignant side effects of the struggle to audiences. Theatre Three understands the trappings of modern British cocktail society but never manipulates them to achieve the full blossom of the author's dialogue.

Sharon Bunn as the flamboyant Madame Arcati loves to swirl about the stage in her long beads, curly shoulder length hair, and chaotically patterned muumuus, but she doesn't kick up the dust storm required of this token comic eccentric. Lisa Gabrielle-Greene is the red-dressed title spirit who steals in and out through the Condomine's window and drapes herself sensuously across furniture and nicely spooks the unbelievers. Unfortunately, her silvery abilities as a spiritual manifestation far outstrip any impression she makes as Charles' first love. Artie Olaisen as Charles struck me as the most consistently sympathetic of the cast, a man who is suddenly forced by psychic intervention to reconcile the very different roles he has played in different marriages.

Theatre Three fails to provide its audience with the justification that an umpteenth revival of Blithe Spirit demands. We know American theatergoers revel in the devastation of a bitterly turned English phrase, but Noel Coward never finds a significant enough target for contemporary audiences with this fluff. Considering the whole of Coward's iconoclastic canon, Theatre Three has missed a golden opportunity to remind us why he still matters.

Blithe Spirit runs through December 8. Call (214) 871-2933.

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